River herring come home on the heels of a full moon. Or at least they try to. Riding high tides to freshwaters of their birth throughout New England, they fight face countless, ancient obstacles.
They will be attacked by osprey, consumed by eagles, devoured by whales, chased by striped bass and snatched off shorelines by raccoons. River herring, alewives and bluebacks both, impossibly will return from two years at sea precisely to waters of their birth in South Kingstown, Warwick, Tiverton, Providence and more. They will swim over gravel, move around rocks, fly over timbers and fight like hell to summit natural and man-made impediments to their natal waters. Many times in many places, they square up to granite or filedstone walls which end their migrations so they never spawn and a cycle of life is cancelled.
River herring are miracles of Nature who feed an ecosystem, spawn, then return to the sea for two years. March’s new moon beckons them but Nature is a fickle force so really, they will show up on a high tide when they are good and ready. This year, they were right on time.
Antonio Carlos Jobin gave us “And the riverbank talks of the waters of March, it’s the promise of life, it’s the joy in your heart.” Indeed, river herring are the darlings of Spring. Locally, we have two species. Alewives are Alosa pseudoharengus while bluebacks are Alosa aestivalils. They look very similar but if you could hold two side by each, you would see some differences in color and girth.
Bluebacks also prefer to spawn in moving waters, like the Saugatucket River while alewives prefer calm waters, like Warwick Pond. They were netted, speared and corralled nearly to extinction. We packed them 400 to a wooden barrel for food and fertilizer, roe and decorative scales. As is our history, we took until they were depleted then abandoned relic dams blocking their spawning waters. John Waldman wrote, “A river with the profound affront of even one dam on it is highly compromised in comparison with a free-flowing river.”
River herring travel thousands of sea miles to come home
For years, volunteers moved fish, fire drill style, around dams to protect their critical migrations. Braving cold Spring water baptisms, people stood chest deep to net herring and quickly move them around impediments. Aging dams are a liability hazard and a lingering reminder of callous disregard for water and fishes as man’s need for energy increased exponentially.
The Buckeye Brook Coalition is a fine example of good people working very hard to help river herring come home with safe passage for alewives and blueback herring and they would be happy to have your enthusiasm. You have likely driven over Buckeye Brook countless times on your way here or there without noticing its flow or understanding its delivery of ancient fishes who struggled their way inland thousands of years before we levelled and paved then complained about flooded basements and standing water. Please read more about them at www.buckeyebrook.org. The River Herring Collective is a new collaborative effort in South County with veteran volunteer Paul Clappin at the helm. Paul waded into this gig with the retirement of venerable, tireless, dedicated, tirade-tempted Bill McWha, who pioneered the herring lift movement, championed its possibilities, voraciously outed those who failed to act swiftly for forage fish passage and always was a sirens call for volunteers to get wet and help fishes impeded by man’s abandoned, often unnecessary granite monuments to power production and kersey cloth.
Construction of new fish ladders has helped move forage fishes around some dams, but there is so much more work to be done on that front. Now with regulatory protection from human harvest, ever so slowly, buckies are returning in larger numbers.
River herring need your help
If you are interested in helping or counting these mighty forage fishes passing over white boards, RIDEM is asking for volunteers at fish runs in Wakefield, North Kingstown, Warwick, Providence and East Providence but first they have some forms for you to complete first. No good deed comes without paperwork. Contact Jennifer Brooks at RIDEM to take a quick and helpful training and then perch yourself over some herring.
After river herring run up the Narrow River to rest and spawn in Carr Pond, the Rhody Fly Rodders could use a hand dragging up bags of refuse on Saturday, April 30 from 8-10am. Along with the RI Saltwater Anglers Association’s Fly Fishing Committee and the Narrow River Preservation Society, they are hoping to clean the banks and beach before the careless fill it back up with their refuse. The Narrow River Preservation Society is donating trash bags, gloves, buckets, containers for sharp objects and will be removing the spoils. Meet at Sprague Bridge in Narragansett, where sadly there seems to always be plenty of junk to retrieve. Now if you could just figure out how to get all those jig heads and pearl plastics down from the bridge steel, that would really be something.
If you’re not familiar with The Rhody Fly Rodders, they are America’s Oldest Fly Fishing Club, which affords them paramount street cred on the beach. They would love you to join the effort, maybe bring some waders and a fly rod to celebrate a clean beach by landing some shad or striped bass. Coffee and COVID appropriate treats will be provided. Contact Susan Estabrook at email@example.com for more info or to join the fun and celebrate Spring with river herring, conservation and tight lines.